Multitasking: A Myth
Gen Zers switch tasks every 19 seconds. This generation prides itself on multitasking. They think they can do it, and they think they do it quite well. The truth is: no one can multitask. You can do one thing and then another thing. Our brains simply are not made to do more than one thing at one time.
Students need to know about how multitasking (and smartphone and social media usage, which are prime contributors to the myth of multitasking) is actually detrimental to learning, not to mention their well-being.
Here are the problems with multitasking:
- it’s self-reinforcing,
- causes memory mix-ups,
- depletes energy needed to stay on task,
- and requires constant decision making, which leads to exhaustion.
There are two keys problems with multitasking:
- Multitasking releases the powerful stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline that negatively impact the parts of the brain that are responsible for short-term memory recall and long-term memory consolidation. Students are actually genuinely having trouble remembering.
- Multitasking has a built-in dopamine addiction feedback loop: multitasking releases endorphins that keep us doing it. We think we’re being productive and that feels good.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the last to develop and is not fully formed until your mid 20’s. It’s the center of the brain responsible for executive function, responsible for decision-making and self-regulation. It also has a ‘novelty bias’ and is easily distracted by ‘shiny things’: videos of cute puppies, pings from Instagram, an upsetting thread on twitter, a texted photo of your friend’s lunch. Each distraction causes a burst of dopamine that feels good and reinforces engaging in the distracting activities. We’re distracted and the part of the brain that we need to keep us on task is what’s suffering the most.
Finally, the constant shifting of attention causes the prefrontal cortex to burn up excessive energy needed to make decisions so quickly that you can feel exhausted and disoriented. Depleted nutrients lead to cognitive and physiological impairment and increased anxiety. If you’re multitasking, you’re constantly deciding what to do. They are little decisions but little decisions require as much energy as big ones. Constant decision making on small things can lead to exhaustion resulting in bad decision making on things that really matter. Modern neuroscience has debunked the myth.
Staying on task simply uses less energy, is more efficient, promotes memory and learning, and reduces stress.